The decision about whether a child should enter care is an important one. The risk of abuse and neglect must be weighed up against the impact of removing a child from their birth family.

Decisions are often delayed as professionals aren't sure what the best option is for the child. Meanwhile, children live in a constant state of uncertainty and remain at risk of abuse and neglect.

Over 60% of children in care are looked after due to abuse and neglect

Explanation: 48,500 children were looked after due to abuse or neglect in England and Wales at 31 March 2017. This was 62% of all children in care in England and Wales.

It is not possible to get an exact number for the UK as Scotland and Northern Ireland do not publish reasons for children being in care.

Children can also become looked after because:

  • a child is disabled
  • a parent is ill or disabled
  • there are other family problems
  • or because the parents are absent (for example, unaccompanied asylum seekers).

Looked after children also include children who are looked after on a voluntary basis at the request of, or by agreement with, their parents. It also includes children who are looked after for short periods of time, such as respite care.

In Scotland, children in the criminal justice system are also counted as looked after children.

See also Indicator 17 in How safe are our children? 2018.

The rise of children in care

Numbers of children in care in the UK have risen in recent years

Explanation: The total number of children in care in the UK has increased every year since 2010.

The number of looked after children in the UK has increased from 88,128 at 31 March 2010 to 96,505 at 31 March 2017 (31 July in Scotland); an overall increase of 10%.

The number of children entering care has increased every year since 2011. In 2010/11 34,975 children started to be looked after in the UK, in 2016/17 this had increased to 40,075; an overall increase of 15%.


See also Indicator 17 in How safe are our children? 2018.

Making the decision to take a child into care

Children who come in to care are often known to social services for a number of years before action is taken (Masson et al, 2008).

For many children the need to enter care could have been identified at a much earlier stage. For too many children this delay in decision-making prolongs their experiences of abuse and neglect. On entry to care these children experience greater degrees of difficulty and the specialist services they require are less likely to have an impact (Davies and Ward, 2012).

What works

Teenage girl smilingOur book Promoting the wellbeing of children in care identifies ways to better safeguard children on the edge of care:

  • improve understanding of how to identify damaging situations
  • improve decision-making about when it is in a child's best interests to enter care
  • ensure that decisions are well planned and taken in a timely fashion.
Achieving these aims requires a rethink of how we support children and families on the edge of care, and how we make decisions about when it is in a child's best interest to enter care. We need:
  • greater use of multi-agency approaches to assessment and support for children and families on the edge of care
  • revised training for social workers and other practitioners to ensure an improved understanding of: child development, the identification of risk and protective factors and parental capacity to change
  • improvements in undergraduate and post-qualification training to ensure that social workers and other professionals are also able to develop a better understanding of the impact of care and effective interventions
  • greater effort to ensure stability for children and young people on the edge of care and following their entry to care.

Care proceedings in the UK

Find out how care proceedings work from pre-proceedings to the granting of a care order in each of the four nations:


Find out more

Northern Ireland

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What we're doing to help

We're piloting the New Orleans Intervention Model to help professionals make robust and timely decisions. First developed in the USA, this service helps social workers and judges decide whether a child should stay with their birth family or enter care permanently.

Our aim is to help reunite the child with their family where possible, or place them permanently into care if not.

More about children in care

Emotional wellbeing and mental health

How we're supporting the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children in care
How we're supporting children in care

Returning home from care

The most common outcome for a child who has left the care system is to return back home to a parent or relative. 
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  1. Davies, C. and Ward, H. (2012) Safeguarding children across services: messages from research. London: Jessica Kingsley.

  2. Masson, J. et al. (2008) Care profiling study (PDF). London: Ministry of Justice.